For the last few years, the Sharks have consistently been ranked in the NHL’s top 10 in regards to team prospects. Given this, it is not at all surprising that for the last couple years, the Sharks have had several rookies playing for the team. In 97-98, it was the trio of Andrei Zyuzin, Marco Sturm, and Patrick Marleau. This year, it was Alexander Korolyuk and Andy Sutton who were the main rookie forces. Neither were ever touted nearly as much as the other three, but they were effective none the less. (Scott Hannan and Shawn Heins both played in 5 games, but saw only limited time and will still be considered rookies next year). Then the question is set to ask what new, young faces can you expect to see next year?
The answer at this point isn’t quite so clear given how early it is regarding free agent signings. Also, given the Sharks logjam at defense, someone will eventually be left in the cold. Conceivably, as many as six rookies who could possibly play for the Sharks next year. The two most obvious names are defensemen Brad Stuart and Scott Hannan. In addition to those two, there is defenseman Shawn Heins, right wing Matt Bradley, center Mark Smith, and goaltender John Nabokov. Barring serious injury problems, no more than two of these men will open the year with the Sharks. The only way it would be three is if John Nabokov is presented with one of the situations mentioned below.
The defense position is going to be the tough one for the Sharks. This year, the final defensive position on the Sharks was Shawn Heins’ to lose, and he did lose it, to another rookie Andy Sutton. So far, Heins hasn’t done much to improve his standing on the Sharks roster. While he is fast, has a hard shot, and has the size; he needs to get smarter. He continues to make bad decisions on the ice, often costing the team dearly, the consequence being a goal or a stupid penalty. Heins will likely start next year in Kentucky (AHL), with possible call-ups midway through the season.
That leaves a showdown between two first round draft picks: Brad Stuart and Scott Hannan. Hannan has not received half of the attention Stuart has received, but people will pay for their lack of attention. The omission of Hannan in numerous Top 50” lists is a serious oversight.
Brad Stuart very well may turn out to be the best defenseman not currently playing in the NHL. To put it simply, he has all the skills. He has the speed, the shot, the passing ability, and has great vision on the ice. During this year’s WJC, many were displeased with his performance. Given that it was his first WJC, and his first major tournament, an “average” performance is not horrible. During the Memorial Cup tournament, so far he’s done a very good job. He would benefit greatly by spending time in the minors to learn a more intense and faster game. There were times when he looked out of place on the ice at training camp, so some time at the next level will do him wonders. Among some of his mistakes last year were screening goaltender Mike Vernon, despite Vernon’s pokes telling him to get out the way, and very rough passes out of the defensive zone. If he is to play with the Sharks next year, he still must be signed.
Scott Hannan started the year with the San Jose Sharks, sticking around for the team’s first 14 games, playing in five of them. In those fives games, he recorded two assists (both in his first game), was even in plus/minus, and did not play badly at all. He made some of the typical “rookie mistakes,” but all expected out of a young defenseman. Hannan is one of the most underrated defensive prospects. For one, he’s been playing on a Kelowna team that has not had nearly the same kind of talent that Stuart has played with. Had Hannan played the full year in Kelowna, he would have the most points on Kelowna this year with names like Adams, Hunter and McDade helping him out. Stuart would be 4th on the team in points had he played the full year (missing time due to WJC) with guys like Lysak, Brendl, and Moran helping him out. Which teammates would you prefer? Given that, notice the comparison of stats.
Stuart: 59GP, 21G (15 on the PP), 41A, +15, 69PIM.
Hannan: 47GP, 15G (9 on the PP), 30A, -7. 92PIM.
In addition to that, Hannan played a lot of minutes. There were games when Hannan played 45+ minutes a game, and was no worse during that 45th minute than during the 1st. Kelowna’s play (especially their PP) often centered around Hannan, as without him, Kelowna would have not have made the playoffs. Playing for the Kentucky Thoroughblades during the playoff run, it took Hannan some time to get adjusted, but has played quite well after coming back from a shoulder injury.
This year the Kentucky Thoroughblades were pleasantly surprised by two rookies: right wing Matt Bradley, and center Mark Smith. These two rookies have been a major reason why the TBlades have improved so greatly this year.
Matt Bradley, chosen in the 4th round (102nd overall) in the 96 draft, was the TBlades 6th leading scorer, and led the team in games played, missing only one game. He was solid in all aspects of his game, with no glaring weaknesses or consistent mistakes. He was good defensively (a must for Darryl Sutter), holds his own in the corners, and is willing to fight for the puck. There is a chance the Sharks will lose a little bit on the right wing this off season. With right wings Joe Murphy and Dave Lowry (along with Ron Sutter who played some time on the right) all unrestricted free agents, they may find themselves a little thin in that position come next year if those guys go elsewhere. That would be leaving Owen Nolan, Ronnie Stern, Tony Granato (player option to become UFA as well), and Brantt Myhres as the only right wings on the Sharks. While each of those men serve a role, none of them serve the role of a decent #2 guy, which the Sharks will need. Should injuries arise, Bradley may find himself in a Sharks uniform sooner than later. Bradley will likely play his first game sometime next year, but not start the year in San Jose.
A huge surprise for the TBlades this year was no doubt center Mark Smith. Chosen in the 9th round (219th overall) of the 1997 draft, no one would have ever expected him to make it beyond the WHL, but instead, he suddenly found himself playing in the AHL at the start of this year, and playing well. In addition, he was named one of the Alternate Captains of the TBlades, which is not common for a rookie in his position. Missing only two games (second to Bradley in GP), Smith was strong in all aspects of his game as well. Smith is one of those players who can bug you just about everywhere on the ice. At 5’10”, you don’t think of him as a physical force on the ice, but he will not shy from the front of the net if necessary. While he may not have the awesome goal totals of some guys, he is definitely a threat, and if you give him enough room, he’ll beat you. Smith’s adjustment to the pro game has been smooth. In his final year in the WHL, Smith scored 42G and 57A. Clearly, no one would expect him to duplicate that, but he has been able to duplicate pretty much the rest of his game. There are plenty of very good players who have a lot of trouble doing that, and he made the transition very well. Unless the Sharks get stung by a lot of injuries, don’t expect to see Smith in San Jose next year. With Marleau, Friesen, Ricci, Sturm, Korolyuk, Guolla and Skalde all capable centers, and all under contract for next year, it is highly unlikely Smith would get the call up to San Jose. However, if he continues to impress and improve, it is an outside possibility.
The final possibility for a rookie presence on the Sharks is goalie John Nabokov. Nabby played very well this year after struggling last year in his first year of professional hockey, and first year in North America. The chances of Nabokov starting the year in San Jose are slim however. It could happen one of two ways. 1) If the Sharks choose to leave Mike Vernon unprotected in the expansion draft in order to protect more skaters, and Atlanta then chooses him.
2) If Vernon or Shields get injured during the pre-season. With his play this year, and the fact that Sean Gauthier very well may not be back next year, that would likely put Nabokov as the next man in line for goal. Nabokov’s biggest weakness has always been his consistency, which greatly improved this year. His play during the playoffs and during training camp and pre-season games next year will largely determine how far down the depth chart he will be with the Sharks.
It would be a safe bet to say that some rookies will play for the Sharks next year. Most of them will probably play in spot duty as the year progresses, filling in for injuries. From there, it’s very possible that they may earn permanent jobs on the team, as Alex Korolyuk did this year. Players in that boat may include Matt Bradley and Brad Stuart. Nabokov may make it for a few games, but if another goalie is necessary for an extended period of time, they may prefer to make some sort of trade, so that separates him from the other two. The two who are dark horses are Shawn Heins and Mark Smith, who will probably need to have some luck on their side to make it next year.